Air: In brief

Air quality has continued to improve since 2000 and holds up well in comparison to other European countries. Nevertheless, the levels of ozone, particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide occasionally exceed the ambient limit values and therefore remain a health risk. Additionally, atmospheric nitrogen deposition is still too high and has negative effects on ecosystems, biodiversity, soil, water and climate. To improve air quality, further national and international measures must be taken in the areas of transport, industry, incineration, heating systems and agriculture.

1. Mobility, energy use, industrial and agricultural production (drivers)

In 2016, a total of 132.6 billion passenger-kilometres were travelled on roads and rails for passenger transport in Switzerland. This is almost a third more than in 2000, and the 17% increase is higher than the growth of the permanent resident population.

As for freight transport, roads provided a 61% share and railways a 39% share of all transport services in 2016. They had a total volume of 27.8 billion tonne-kilometres in 2016—up 18% from 2000. The road percentage increased nearly three times as much as the railway percentage between 2000 and 2016.

The transport prospects until 2040 developed by various federal offices show that the number of kilometres travelled is likely to continue to grow substantially. The reference scenario estimates an increase of 25% in the area of passenger transport and 37% in the area of freight transport between 2010 and 2040.

In addition to traffic, the quality of the air is also influenced by energy consumption and consumer behaviour, the operation of industrial and commercial installations, and agriculture.

Natural processes, such those of microbial and chemical processes in the soil and water bodies, the secretions of plants and animals, erosion, forest fires, and lightning also have an effect but their impact on overall air quality in Switzerland is typically relatively modest.

2. Pollutant emissions (pressures)

The main causes of current air pollution are the following:

  • motorised transport (nitrogen oxides (NOx), particulate matter, volatile organic compounds (VOC) and soot),
  • households, including wood combustion (particulate matter, VOC and soot),
  • agriculture (ammonia, VOC and particulate matter)
  • industry (VOC, NOx and particulate matter)

The pollutants are carried by air currents and can change chemically and physically during transport. Ozone (summer smog) is produced from the precursor pollutants nitrogen oxides (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). “Secondary” particulate matter can be formed from ammonia, VOCs, NOx and sulphur dioxide.

Emissions of most pollutants have fallen further since 2000. However, the reduction targets specified in the Federal Council’s Air Pollution Control Strategy 2009 have not been achieved to date, except for sulphur dioxide.

  • The source of the particulate matter emissions (PM10, PM2.5) is divided in almost equal parts between industry, transport and agriculture, and households to a lesser extent. PM10 emissions decreased by 12% between 2005 and 2016. The target is a reduction of 45% compared to 2005.
  • Approximately half of the nitrogen oxide emissions are caused by transport. Total emissions decreased by 27% between 2005 and 2016. The target is a 50% reduction.
  • Over 50% of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are produced by industry. The target is a reduction of around 30% compared to 2005. To date, a reduction of 24% has been achieved.
  • Ammonia (NH3) originates almost exclusively from agriculture, where it escapes into the air from stables and liquid manure storage and application sites. Total ammonia emissions, which are responsible for around two-thirds of the nitrogen deposition, have only decreased by about 5% since 2005. The target is a reduction of 40%. 

3. Limit values for NOx, ozone and particulate matter occasionally exceeded, SO2 limit values complied with, excessive nitrogen inputs (state)

Air quality in Switzerland has continued to improve since 2000 and holds up well in international comparison with similarly densely populated regions. For 9 out of 13 of the most important air pollutants for which the Ordinance on Air Pollution Control specifies ambient limit values, the levels throughout Switzerland are now below these limits.

However, the limit values for nitrogen dioxide (NO2), ground-level ozone (O3) and particulate matter still occasionally exceed the defined limit values.

Excessive nitrogen inputs, two-thirds of which come from ammonia (NH3) emissions and one-third from NOx emissions, impact the environment to an extent that significantly exceeds the critical loads.

4. Diseases, fatalities, over-fertilisation and economic costs (impacts)  

Excessive levels of particulate matter, ozone and nitrogen dioxide pose the greatest threat to health as they cause and exacerbate respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. According to a report entitled “Externe Kosten und Nutzen des Verkehrs in der Schweiz” (external costs and benefits of transport in Switzerland), the current state of the air resulted in around 2,200 premature deaths in Switzerland in 2015, including around 200 from lung cancer. Year on year, elevated air pollutant concentrations are responsible for over 1,800 hospital admissions due to cardio-vascular diseases and respiratory disorders and a total of 14,000 hospital days.

High levels of nitrogen in the air cause widespread over-fertilisation of ecosystems. This causes a loss of biodiversity and contributes to the acidification of forest soil and is especially harmful for forests, species-rich meadows and grasslands, alpine pastures, and raised mires and fens. Numerous species that have adapted to low-nutrient habitats are, therefore, endangered as a result of over-fertilisation. Nearly all raised mires, almost 90% of forests, three-quarters of fens and one-third of all dry meadows are being adversely affected by nitrogen levels that exceed the critical value.

In agriculture, air pollution (i.e. by ozone) can result in harvest losses of up to 15%.

Air pollutants accelerate corrosion of materials and therefore cause damage to buildings and cultural monuments.

Air pollution costs billions every year in Switzerland. These external costs, which cannot be passed on to the polluters, relate to healthcare, harvest losses, and damage to buildings and materials. The Federal Office for Spatial Development ARE has calculated the total annual health costs to be over CHF6 billion.

Soot particles, methane and ground-level ozone are air pollutants that also influence the climate

5. Legislative provisions on emissions (responses)

Even if there is no immediate risk to the environment (precautionary principle), in order to protect human beings, animals, plants and their habitats against the harmful effects of air pollution, the relevant legislation must ensure that pollutant emissions are kept at the lowest possible level that is economically viable and technically feasible. More stringent restrictions are imposed, if it is assumed that harmful effects will arise.

Federal regulations exist for pollutant emissions from heating systems, industrial installations, motor vehicles, machinery and equipment, ships and rolling stock as well as for the quality of combustibles and heating fuels.

Moreover, state-of-the-art technology should be used in motor vehicles, industrial and agricultural machinery, and heat generation systems. The Euro-6/VI standards for motor vehicles, which have been in force since 2014, have introduced—albeit with some delay—­further improvements in relation to particulate matter and nitrogen oxide emissions.

Other measures that have been implemented include the heavy vehicle charge and the incentive tax on volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

To reduce the ammonia emissions generated by livestock farming, the federal authorities have been supporting low-emissions methods like the spreading of manure using drag hoses since 2008. The potential to reduce ammonia emissions through technical and operational measures is large and must be harnessed.

The cantons have developed action plans to protect the air by reducing pollution at the local level, for example by promoting the use of public transport or imposing temporary bans on wood-fired systems.

Synergies with other policy areas occur particularly in the area of energy and climate policy. Measures to increase efficiency and replace fossil energies with renewable ones are usually consistent with air pollution control policy.

In addition, long-term measures are needed to reduce large-scale air pollution in other European countries. This means that further action is required at international level within the context of the Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution.

Further information



Last modification 30.11.2018

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